Week of 9/10/2006

Dear EarthTalk: Now that the school year is starting, how can I pack lunches for my kids that are less wasteful of packaging?

—Maryellen, via e-mail

When kids open their lunchboxes after a hard morning of the three Rs (readin", "ritin" and "rithmetic), they hardly expect to be learning about the other three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle). But parents can use the lunch they pack for the kids as a green lesson—if, that is, they can only hold off on the convenient but wasteful single-use paper napkins, plastic baggies and cutlery, and the pre-packaged foods and juice boxes.

We’ve all come to depend upon such throwaways to keep us moving speedily through each day, and it is difficult to resist those temptations jutting out at us in the supermarket aisles (especially if we bring the kids shopping with us!). But such conveniences come at an environmental cost as our landfills clog up with plastic and our garbage incinerators continue to belch out hazardous emissions.

So how are parents to "do the right thing?"

Enter Amy Hemmert and Tammy Pelstring, two California moms who were appalled to learn that a typical American school kid generates 67 pounds of discarded lunchbox packaging waste per school year. That’s more than 18,000 pounds yearly for the average sized elementary school.

Hemmert and Pelstring began networking with other parents who shared their concerns, and quickly hit upon the "no-brainer" that by switching to reusable lunch containers, cloth napkins, stainless-steel forks and spoons, and refillable drink containers—not to mention eschewing the "Lunchables" and other unhealthy-to-boot prepared meals—they could eliminate their kids" lunch waste altogether.

They also discovered it was a great way to save money, as the costs of single-use disposables like juice boxes adds up quickly in relation to those of doling juice into plastic screw-top "sippie" cups out of half-gallon containers. Sure, some of the silverware and containers never make it back home, but that’s a small "one step back" against the "two steps forward" of saving hundreds of dollars per child per school year.

Waste-free lunches also save schools time and money, as less waste cuts down on the frequency of trips to the outside dumpster and on the amount of trash that needs to be hauled away. "If every American child attending a public elementary school packed a waste-free lunch, 1.2 billion pounds of lunch waste would be diverted from landfills each year," says Hemmert. "Landfills would last longer, and children would learn the importance of protecting the planet," she adds.

Hemmert and Pelstring, who met in 1995 as members of a mothers group, went on to be good friends and jogging partners and, in 2002, launched a company, Obentec, specializing in the production of stylish reusable and modular lunch containers called Laptop Lunches, fashioned after Asian Bento boxes. The company also produces a free monthly newsletter, the Laptop Lunch Times, which includes lunch recipe suggestions, packing tips and links to related websites.

CONTACTS: Waste-Free Lunches, www.wastefreelunches.org; Obentec, www.laptoplunches.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Is there a connection between Mad Cow Disease and Alzheimer"s?

—Jon Luongo, Brooklyn, NY

Despite limited evidence, some researchers fear that just such a connection might exist. In his 2004 book, Brain Trust, biochemist Colm Kelleher argues that Mad Cow Disease (also known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE) has actually been in North American cattle since long before 1993 when the first case was publicly "discovered" in a beef cow in Canada’s Alberta province.

According to Kelleher’s research, undocumented cases date back at least a quarter century and may have tainted many a steak and hamburger already consumed. Further, Kelleher speculates that the infectious "prion" proteins that cause Mad Cow Disease and its brain-wasting human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), could be a factor in the substantial increase in cases of Alzheimer’s disease in recent years.

Some other research bears out Kelleher’s claims; though blaming all of the increase in Alzheimer’s on rampant prions might be pushing it. Dr. Michael Greger, Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States, cites several studies detailing that as much as 12 percent of all senile dementia or Alzheimer’s cases diagnosed in North America these days may actually be cases of CJD.

"It would seem CJD is seriously underdiagnosed at present," says Greger. He goes on to describe how the symptoms and pathology of both Alzheimer’s and CJD overlap. Also, he points to epidemiological evidence suggesting that people eating red meat more than four times a week for prolonged periods have a three times higher chance of suffering dementia than long-time vegetarians.

"We don’t know exactly what’s happening to the rate of CJD in this country, in part because CJD is not an official illness," says Greger, explaining that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does not actively monitor incidences of the disease. He adds that several clusters of CJD outbreaks have been reported across the continent in recent years and stresses that more studies need to be done to determine just how many of the five million North Americans with Alzheimer"s-like symptoms might actually have CJD.

Regardless, nutritionists hardly need more evidence about the potentially negative health effects of eating red meat. For starters, the saturated animal fat in red meat contributes to heart disease and atherosclerosis. Recent research also shows that frequent red meat eaters face twice the risk of colon cancer as those who indulge less often. Red meat is also thought to increase the risks of rheumatoid arthritis and endometriosis.

Meanwhile, according to the American Dietetic Association, vegetarian diets can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease, colon cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, kidney disease, hypertension, obesity and other debilitating medical conditions. While red meat is a key source of protein and vitamin B12 in North American diets, nutritionists explain that properly planned meat-free diets easily provide these important nutrients while keeping you healthier in the long run.

CONTACTS: Brain Trust, www.colmkelleher.com; American Dietetic Association, www.eatright.org.